During the approximately 8,000 years that potatoes have been cultivated in the Andes, farmers have selected types to meet their particular local needs and preferences, as well as to thrive in the myriad microenvironments scattered throughout South America's 4,000-km-long mountainous backbone. This vast and long-standing selection process has resulted in thousands of distinct types, and Andean Indians sometimes grow up to 200 different kinds of potatoes in a single field.
Most of these Andean potatoes (various Solanum species) are quite unlike what people elsewhere take to be “normal” for a potato. They can have skin and flesh that is often brilliantly colored (sometimes bright yellow or deep purple). Some have eye-catching shapes, often being long, thin, and wrinkled. And most have a rich potato flavor and a high nutritional quality.
These “odd” potatoes deserve much more recognition. Many have appealing culinary qualities and could fill specialty niches in the huge worldwide potato industry. For example, they can be less watery than common potatoes or have nutlike tastes and crisp textures. Moreover, most of these little-known potatoes are adapted to marginal growing environments and possess considerable resistance to various troublesome diseases, insects, and nematodes, as well as frost.
There has never been a better time to investigate these lesser-known crops. New markets for small or unusual potatoes are springing up. In North America, for instance, the food industry is avidly exploiting miniature vegetables of all kinds, and demand is increasing for small and colorful potatoes in particular.